With Massive NBA Title Expectations, Are Brooklyn Nets Being Set Up to Fail?
Every NBA team wants to win, except, maybe, for those currently "tanking" for a shot at landing Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 draft.
But not every team needs to win, at least not to the extent that the Brooklyn Nets need to this season. General manager Billy King was clear about the lofty expectations and stark reality that this revamped roster faces in 2013-14 (via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York):
"Now, this is the window -- this season. We're going to see what we can do with this season, and then we'll see what next season brings."
Perhaps that's why the Nets are holding a five-day training camp on the campus of Duke University. Perhaps the hope is that their aging core—now joined by 30-somethings Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko—will be able to absorb some of the youthful vitality that evaporates off of the school's student body.
Okay, so the choice of location was more about Billy King's connection to legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski from the former's days as a Blue Devil than anything else.
Still, there's no denying the sense of urgency surrounding this squad. It's entirely possible that all of Brooklyn's biggest acquisitions from this past summer could be gone by the next.
Pierce, who turns 36 on October 13, will be out of his contract after this season, at which point he may well call it quits. Garnett could join him in retirement, even though the 37-year-old power forward is due $12 million in 2014-15. Terry had a tough year with the Boston Celtics in 2012-13 and, at 36, would be hard-pressed to bounce back in a big way in a new city. As for Kirilenko, if he plays as well this year as he did last season with the Minnesota Timberwolves, he'll probably turn down his player option for 2014-15 in order to pursue more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.
This is all to say nothing of the issues faced by the Nets' incumbent stars. Brook Lopez is an All-Star center when healthy but has succumbed to foot problems in recent years. Joe Johnson was hobbled by plantar fasciitis all throughout his inaugural season in Brooklyn. Deron Williams has been talked up as an MVP candidate by two of the franchise's newcomers but will have to overcome a bum ankle and a bone bruise suffered during an offseason workout in Utah.
This, after Williams fought through poor conditioning and inflammation in his ankle last season, in the aftermath of the 2012 London Olympics.
The mere mention of injury brings us right back to KG, whose own body has become a ticking time bomb of sorts since he left Minneapolis in 2007. Garnett's fragile frame, racked by more than 53,000 minutes played as a pro, was a constant concern for the C's and will be one in Brooklyn as well. Jason Kidd, the Nets' new head coach, has already tried to talk to Garnett about keeping him fresh for the playoffs, by limiting his minutes and holding him out of back-to-backs, with middling results (via Adi Joseph of USA Today):
"It didn't go too well," Garnett said. "I understand what he's saying. He just wants to make sure I'm durable. ... I just don't want to be told anything. I think I've earned the right to have an opinion on something that I'm doing. From a chemistry standpoint, I think it's important for me to be out there with everybody."
Getting Garnett to submit to a cap on his playing time, strict or otherwise, is but one of the many challenges facing Kidd this season. For all of his gifts as a Hall of Fame player and an on-court leader, Kidd's still never coached at any level. He'll have to learn the finer points of coaching that most take years of hard work and dedication to master—from pregame preparation and setting up meetings to managing egos, running practices and sussing out a solid rotation—in a matter of months.
Having Lawrence Frank, Kidd's former coach from his playing days with the Nets, should help to ease the transition, but the baptism in store for the former point guard will be one of fire. He's under the proverbial gun to nail down the details of his new job, lest he and the Nets watch their best opportunity to contend in the Eastern Conference slip away with but a whimper.
And even this team, with its five All-Stars in the starting lineup, is hardly guaranteed to be a major factor in the East.
The Chicago Bulls should be among the best in basketball now that Derrick Rose is back. The Indiana Pacers will get their own shot in the arm from a healthy Danny Granger, along with a much-improved bench, after coming within a game of cracking the NBA Finals. The Nets will have to contend for attention (and wins) in their own market with the New York Knicks, who added Metta World Peace and Andrea Bargnani to a Carmelo Anthony-centric core that tallied 54 victories last season.
The Knicks were second-best in the East, to only the now-two-time defending-champion Miami Heat, who will be in line to three-peat after keeping last season's 66-win squad more or less intact.
Those four teams are already established powers in the Eastern Conference. They each sport the sort of continuity, both on the court and stalking the sidelines, that the Nets don't have now and won't likely have the luxury of developing over the long haul.
Not that Brooklyn will be entirely screwed if things don't break their way this season. There's always the chance that Garnett will be motivated to see his contract through, and that he'll be in Pierce's ear to keep The Truth on board as well.
Even if those guys are gone by this time next year, the Nets' cupboard won't exactly be bare. Brooklyn's new arrivals are joining a team that won 49 games and finished fourth in the East in 2012-13, with Williams, Johnson and Lopez doing most of the heavy lifting.
But last year's Nets had their fair share of flaws. Their overall lack of toughness cost them in a first-round series against the banged-up Bulls. Chicago won in seven, despite not having Rose, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng on hand for much (if not the entirety) of the team's postseason run.
It's no wonder, then, that Billy King was so hard on his guys for being, well, soft (via Roderick Boone of Newsday):
"You saw it. There were certain games where things just happened that you can't allow to happen. At some point, you've got to knock a guy on his ---- if they're doing things. You've got to take a hard foul and let them know you just can't do that.
"And we didn't do it, in certain games of the playoffs, in certain games of the regular season. It's just basketball, but if a guy has got a layup, you've got to put him on his ---- so they don't do it."
Garnett and Pierce should help to correct that to some extent. Both have long been known for being brash, unafraid of the conflict that comes with rough, message-sending contact.
But how much of that can these two reasonably be expected to bring to the table when their playing time and preservation are already of chief concern to the Nets? How much toughness can KG and Pierce instill in a soft squad over the course of just one season?
Brooklyn had better hope the answer is "plenty." The Nets gave up a king's ransom to bring Boston's senior citizens to the boroughs and, as a result, won't have much in the way of assets or flexibility with which to restock their roster going forward.
In addition to shipping Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks and Kris Joseph to Beantown, the Nets relinquished their first-round picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018 to seize the C's aging stars. Boston will also have the option to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2017. The Nets might also wind up exchanging picks with the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, thanks to last summer's trade for Joe Johnson.
If that weren't enough, Brooklyn will be without its second-round picks in 2014, 2015 and 2017, and could end up swapping with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2016.
Of course, none of this would matter much if the Nets were set to contend for the next half-decade or so. If that were the case, those selections would all fall into the latter stages of the first and second rounds, where quality rotation players, let alone future stars, are few and far between.
Brooklyn, though, could be bound for a big drop-off in short order and without any means of mitigating its demise. The Nets are already on the hook for more than $100 million in player salary in 2013-14, along with a record-setting $87 million in expected luxury taxes. That sort of cash is a drop in the bucket for team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, whose net worth has been pegged around $13 billion.
But even Prokhorov's overwhelming wealth can only aide the Nets so much in circumventing the restrictions put in place by the most recent collective bargaining agreement.
The team's payroll is expected to top $82 million in 2014-15. That would leave Brooklyn knee-deep in luxury-tax territory, wherein teams are limited to small exceptions and veteran's minimum contracts with which to attract new players.
Adding players thereafter won't be easy, either. The Nets are set to pay out more than $62 million to the trio of Williams, Johnson and Lopez in 2015-16, not including the qualifying offers and team options that'll be on the table for Mirza Teletovic and Mason Plumlee, respectively.
Unless the NBA sees a dramatic uptick in revenue over the next few years—enough to shift the salary cap and luxury tax numbers in a meaningful way—the Nets will be left with little wiggle room in which to reinvent themselves as long-term title contenders. By that point, Brooklyn may well be trapped in the pro basketball equivalent of "no man's land," with an old, expensive slate of declining stars and no real means of refreshing the supporting cast or, for that matter, hitting the reset button.
All of which makes this season that much more crucial for Brooklyn. Prokhorov promised to deliver the Nets to a championship within five years when he came on as the majority owner in 2010, and has yet to renege on his pledge.
In your mind, what would make this season a success for the Nets?
Prokhorov's players will do everything they can to make sure their boss doesn't have to eat his own words. The power to do so isn't entirely their own (a competitive field will have plenty to say about it), but that hasn't degraded the Nets' belief in their own ability to come through. Heck, KG wouldn't still be playing if he didn't think Brooklyn had the chops to contend (via Newsday):
"That's the only reason I came back, man. I like the bones of this team and what I thought I could bring to this team could help. I didn't watch all of the Chicago [playoff] series, but I thought with the additions to what I did see, I felt the additions to what we did this year could help that.
"But it would mean the world. That's the only reason I came back, was to try to win another ring."
Garnett knows a thing or two about parlaying pressure and expectations into postseason success in a hurry. The last time he changed employers, he immediately helped Pierce propel the Celtics to a 66-win season and their first championship since 1986, when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were at their peak.
The biggest difference between then and now? The C's didn't have to win right away. Their window of contention, while not exceedingly large, still looked to be open for at least three years and was extended for another two years beyond that—or three, depending on how you count Boston's first-round ouster this past spring.
That's because Garnett and Pierce weren't on the brink of retirement back then. Nor were the Celtics ever as far up a certain creek without a paddle, financially speaking, as the Nets currently find themselves.
For the Nets, then, legendary football coach Red Sanders' words of wisdom ring all too true. Winning isn't everything. Indeed, it's the only thing.
It's not just what Brooklyn wants; it's what the organization, from top to bottom, needs to endear itself to its burgeoning fanbase and to justify the hard times that lay ahead for this squad, whether it succeeds this season or not.
For those of you bummed about Brooklyn, hit me up on Twitter for 140 characters of comfort and commiseration.
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